'In a Grove' and the Gospels


Are y’all familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon?

The film is really based on two works by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927): the eponymous Rashōmon only served as the source the film’s title, the setting (the dilapidated /Rashōmon**Rajōmon, the southern gate of Heian-kyo (in modern Kyoto), the capital of Japan from 794-1868), and a few subplots. The main plot of the film, however, it taken from another story written by Akutagawa: In a Grove. (You can read the story here.) Now In a Grove is interesting actually reminds me of the situation you have in the gospels. There you have seven different accounts of a single murder: while there are general similarities, there are also differences and discrepancies in each ‘testimony’ - up to and including those of the murderer, the victim (speaking through a medium) and the victim’s wife. So the questions which arise when you read In a Grove is quite similar to that you might have when you read the gospels: how can one harmonize the conflicting accounts (in other words, how can you reconstruct ‘what really happened’)? Who among the witnesses is telling the fact - or for that matter, is anyone of them telling the ‘unvarnished fact’ at all?

A common analogy compares the gospels to different news reports of a single event. But IMHO comparing the gospel with the eyewitnesses in In a Grove/Kurosawa’s Rashōmon is perhaps a better analogy.

P.S. This thread is just a little brain teaser. I’d like to know what your thoughts are. Maybe you could even give your own scenario as to how Tajomaru (the murderer) murdered Takehiro (the murdered samurai). :stuck_out_tongue:


It’s been a while since I’ve seen Rashomon, but I think I would differentiate further between that movie and the Gospels. For one thing, I would be cautious of saying anything which gave the impression that I was attributing any error or contradiction to the Gospel accounts. That said, the accounts do seem to be “varnished,” as you put it, differently in each. For example, Matthew seems to me to read like a more straightforward account of events than Mark, which seems more stylized. I recall you posting a thread not too long ago comparing Mark and Matthew arguing that Matthew was praising of the disciples while Mark portrayed them as stupid and incompetent.


Yes. If you ask me though, I don’t really believe “Matthew [was] a more straightforward account of events” or “Mark [was] more stylized” or vice versa. Why not a third possibility - all four accounts are ‘stylized’ in a way. In other words, the evangelists all cast the same events - the same historical facts - differently to better flesh out the themes they want to emphasize the most. I wrote this on that thread:

My answer to this would be (emphasis on ‘my answer’; I know this isn’t a view that everyone shares so this is just me talking) first of all that we have no definitive way of knowing for ourselves, because we weren’t there 2000 years ago.

Secondly, the thing about the gospels is that their portrayals of different characters are usually in the interests of their respective authors: particular themes which the Evangelists want to emphasize inform the way characters are portrayed in the gospels. I too have an issue with the usual analogy of four reporters. It is a favorite explanation, and it does have some truth in it, but I don’t think it completely and adequately explains the phenomenon we see in the gospels. No analogy ever could of course, but I think that the analogy can be and should be qualified further.

On the one hand, you have the ‘fact’, the what-happened, the historical reality, whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, you have four writers taking that ‘fact’ and retelling it from their own perspectives and on their own terms, adapting and refitting it to suit their purposes in the course of the retelling. A modern historian looking for ‘just the unvarnished facts’ will of course be frustrated at this, but the burden really lies in those who read the gospels ultra-literally as if they are mere dry transcripts of the ‘fact’ (in other words, as if something written by a modern historian ;)). This is why I believe that looking at the gospels simply as if they are reports while completely ignoring the fact that they are also literary works is to miss something crucial.

Since we’re talking about Matthew and Mark, their characterizations of the disciples are just that - they serve a literary function in the story.

Mark’s disciples as mentioned are bumbling idiots who repeatedly misunderstand and fail to get things right throughout the story (although they do have their bright moments now and again). This fundamental motif is actually intertwined with other motifs in Mark (in fact they are all interconnected with one another), for instance, that of the messianic secret, of Mark’s Christology (of Jesus as the crucified Messiah and “son of God”), and the theme of ‘amazement’. It is sometimes thought that Mark intended the disciples to be a stand-in for his audiences: his portrayal of them is thus a means for the audience to reevaluate their commitment to their faith and learn, by using the disciples as negative examples, what true discipleship is (a “this is the kind of thing you shouldn’t do”-type of thing). This portrayal also serves to emphasize what a great figure Jesus is by having the disciples as a literary foil: while Jesus is this great guy doing all sorts of wonderful stuff, nobody around Him understands Him, not even His disciples - who we should normally expect to have a better grasp of Him than “those outside” who only gets cryptic parables taught to them.

Matthew cuts back on the negative portrayal and instead chooses to portray the disciples as being more intelligent and capable than Mark’s version of the disciples. Again, this is due to the general emphasis Matthew places on the Church in his gospel. What Matthew wanted to show that just like the wise man who built his house on solid rock, Jesus built the Church with the disciples (particularly Peter, the “rock”) as the foundation. So what better way to emphasize how good the foundation is by casting the disciples in a more positive light. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Matthew sees a chain of continuity between Jesus and the Christians he is writing to, with the disciples as the link between the two. There is no discontinuity; the relationship between Master and disciple isn’t simply a thing of the past. Basically, what Matthew is trying to show is that the disciples have handed down the teachings of Jesus accurately and so, his audience can be assured that they have authentic, unsullied Tradition. In fact, in Matthew the word “disciple” does not refer to the Twelve only (as it is in Mark and Luke): it is used in a much broader sense. In fact, Matthew’s Jesus commands His disciples to “make disciples of all nations.”

If you’re asking me which of them is ‘true’, I’d say both of them are. If you’re asking me which of them is ‘factual’, I’d say what I just said: I could not be totally sure. I’d like to think that it maybe is a combination of both, but short of having a TARDIS or any other time-travelling device I could not make a definitive statement.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.